Can Being Nice to Others Change Your Brain?

What goes around, comes around. Pay it forward. Nice guys finish first.

You are certain to find the perfect term or phrase to describe the perks of emotional positivity and personal generosity. There’s a lot to be said, literally, for being nice to others and treating your neighbors how you’d like to be treated.

But can being nice actually change your brain for the better? As we learn more about the brain, neurologists are taking a closer look at this provocative — and potentially paradigm-shifting — question. Here’s what we know so far.

  1. Kind or Selfless Acts Release Neurotransmitters Associated with Positive Emotion

Studies show that acts of kindness — no, they don’t have to be random — facilitate the release of neurotransmitters associated with positive emotion. In particular, the mood-boosting brain chemical serotonin and pleasure-promoting neurotransmitter dopamine appear in elevated levels after an act of selflessness. The mood boost associated with the kind act can last much longer than the act itself, though persistence is situational.

  1. Kindness Produces Healthier, More Fulfilling Relationships

People who behave selflessly or “do unto others” tend to have more fulfilling personal relationships: happier marriages, healthier parent-child interactions, and even more vibrant relationships with tangential acquaintances and coworkers. You’ve probably experienced an unexpected emotional bond over an act of kindness or selflessness, whether you initiated it or not. Perhaps some of your most fulfilling personal relationships have started or deepened this way.

  1. Kindness May Have Cardiovascular Benefits

Recent studies suggest that altruistic behavior may result in the release of oxytocin, a key inflammation-reducing chemical thought to promote heart health, in elevated levels. Over time, oxytocin reduces “wear and tear” on the heart muscle and cardiovascular system, potentially lowering risk for adverse cardiovascular events.

The Social Implications of the “Nice Brain” Theory

The correlation between selfless acts and positive emotional (and possibly physical) feedback has some provocative — but, it should be stressed, highly assumptive — implications.

For instance, the fact that our bodies appear to reward kindness suggests that humans and perhaps other primates and closely related mammals have evolved some sort of altruism reflex or imperative. As social creatures that evolved in response to some intense environmental pressures (notably rapid changes in climate patterns, which in turn affect food availability and habitat suitability), it makes intuitive sense that altruistic early human populations had better reproductive success relative to selfish ones. That said, more study is needed to determine the strength of this correlation and ascertain whether it’s present in other mammals.

Not Quite Settled

For laypeople, science can seem, well, illogical. In a media environment that increasingly rewards sensationalist stories, grabby headlines and “bite-sized” content, the painstaking and often incremental process of scientific discovery — backstopped by the venerable scientific method — is frustrating for information consumers who demand easy answers.

Then again, the goal of science is to address tough questions without obvious answers. And the discoveries that occur as a result of this process often provoke more questions than they answer. In this particular case, it’s not yet possible to say that being nice is always a boon for your brain. If and when the neurological community is able to say so for sure, you can bet that we’ll have a host of new questions to explore.